Rock ‘n’ Rozsa

Many years ago, I first played a pops show in Columbus that was made up entirely of us playing extended excerpts of classic films scores from the golden age of film music while the originally films were shown on a giant screen behind the orchestra. It’s a great show, and went on to become one of those franchises that for years was on every orchestra’s pops series once every other year or so.

On my first encounter with the show, however, I was just wildly excited to play some of these scores that I could remember from Sunday afternoons as a child, when old movies were the only real choice on TV outside of football season. Gone With the Wind (Max Steiner) was on the list, as was Psycho with Bernard Hermann’s matchless music, and the classic Robin Hood with Korngold’s score. One of the highlights for me, though, was playing Rosza’s score to Ben Hur, which we’re playing next week in Harlech. Hearing, and playing that remarkable score really brought back a lot of happy memories watching these big epic films. When you’re a little kid, you hardly have any idea what it’s about- you just think it’s a good lazy way to spend an afternoon. Eventually, if you are musical, you can’t help but dream of playing those great scores.

Rehearsing with Ken can feel just like this

Another thing about the Rozsa that really struck me at the time was how unbelievably loud it seemed. I still think it was one of the loudest pieces I’ve ever played- it’s pretty amazing just how loud a symphony orchestra can play.

My other funny memory of that show was the end of Robin Hood- the director of the film wanted to create a supercharged atmosphere in one fight scene, so he ordered the score to be sped up electronically quite a bit. Replicating this effect live with all of Korngold’s notes is challenging to the point of being comical.

Well, as I said, this was many years ago, and soon enough, one felt like that show was everywhere you looked- I probably played it with 5 or 6 orchestras and heard it at many others, but all that seems a long time ago. I don’t know if it is still making the rounds or not (let us know with a comment- maybe you’ve played it), and it’s been a good 10 years or more since I came across it.

When I got the score of the Rozsa, I was a little disappointed that it was just printed on paper. I remember as being so loud that one would expect it to be printed on steel. However, I did track down a recording of Rozsa conducting it with the RPO, and my recollection hasn’t failed me- it is a fantastically loud piece. Rosza achieves this extraordinary sense of power and scale through a pretty modestly sized orchestra- more Tchaikovsky sized than Mahler. He just seems to know how to get a huge sound out of the band through the way he voices chords and how he doubles voices.

Believe it or not, I’ve been told more than once by orchestra musicians “I sweat more for you than for any other conductor.” I take this as high praise, but I shudder to think what might happen next week when the world’s sweat-makin-est conductor meets the world’s loudest piece.

Of course, when I hear the piece now, I’m no longer reminded of lazy Sunday afternoons watching old movies on my folks’ shag carpet. I’m reminded of playing that damn pops show- of getting out the earplugs for the Rozsa and racing like mad to catch the end of the Korngold. Being a musician is a funny mix of living out your dreams and killing them off at the same time.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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1 comment on “Rock ‘n’ Rozsa”

  1. Mark Lansom

    Hi Ken, good luck with this stuff! Where did you source the music from? When we did our film show we could only get the chariot music and the “Love Theme” but the rest of the score escaped our librarian.
    I’m listening to his Viola Concerto at the moment, it’s great stuff. Though, if you imagine Ben Hur playing the viola, it sounds almost exactly like that


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